Our Children's Next Future: An open letter to fellow parents
I am a dad. We have 2 great kids. In 20 years when my kids are both adults the world is going to be a fundamentally different place than I know, and it both fascinates me and makes me anxious for them. I'm not talking the usual generational changes, but fundametally different in a way that human kind has not seen since the dawn of agriculture. These are changes that will make the world of their adulthood to be something so foreign that I believe we owe it to our kids to help them prepare for this new world. I think most of us are sadly lacking the basic facts and context to do that prepatory work. Some of us aren't prepared because we aren't aware of the changes looming, while others of us might be aware but don't have the right context as to what to do. This post is an attempt to start addressing that gap.
I will advise you now that this has nothing to do with armegeddon, global warming, or Mayan calendars -- it is about boring, geeky technology. What I hope you will learn to appreciate, however, is that this geeky technology is poised to change every aspect of our kid's world.
Machine's Are Getting More Capable Very, Very Quickly
There are any number of ways to explain this, but I will try to focus on a few, irrefutable trends. First is what is known as Moore's Law. Gordon Moore is one of Intel's co-founders and in 1965 he forecasted the continuation of a trend that the number of transistors that can be put on an integrated circuit would double every 2 years. It has proven true for over 50 years, and should continue for at least another 10-20. I can almost hear the crescendos of "so what?" already. The reality is that this simple trend is one of the main reasons we have seen computers go from the room-sized beasts of IBM, to desktops and now to devices that fit in our pockets. This 'law', or more accurately trend, is probably the largest single driving force behind the explosion of information technology over the last 40+ years. When microprocessors get smaller they also get faster and they get cheaper, so we end up with smaller, faster and cheaper computing devices to the point we have reached today. And this very powerful trend has no near term indication it is going to abate.
At this point it's important to emphasize that when you see things that double, that is an incredibly powerful trend. What makes doubling patterns, or power laws, so powerful is how deceptive they are to our normal intuition and perception. Take the classic question, would you rather have $100,000 today or a penny that I promise to double every day for a month? It seems hard to believe but the doubling penny would grow to over $5.3 million in just those 30 days. What illustrates the deceptive nature of this growth pattern, that you can see in the chart below, is that after 15 days the penny would only have grown to $163.84. If you were watching it grow you probably would be pretty bummed out about your original decision even though you've made it half way through the month. In fact, most of us if offered the choice on day 15 to 'stay the course' or take the hundred grand would probably let out a huge sigh of relief, take the money and feel fourtunate. We humans are not wired to easily grasp these kind of exponential effects and so they tend to sneak up on us. This sidebar is important because many of the technology revolutions that seem to sneak up on us as a surprise are really these kind of exponential trends manifesting themselves.
Impact of Doubling 1 Cent Every Day for 30 Days
Moore's law is just like that doubling penny, and we are at about day 25 or 26 of the month, if we continue the analogy. As you can see in the chart above, the staggering changes we will see ahead of us dwarf what we have already experienced. The same power law change is happening in many facets of technology. The number of bits of information we can store in a specified volume, the amount of data we can transmit down a line, and virtually any digital problem is effectively follwing this same or very similar pattern. To put things in practical terms, on 'day 1' of our month above we landed men on the moon. The computers used to accomplish that amazing feat are not as powerful as the technology we use today in a programmable toaster here on day 25. Now imagine what our state-of-the-art will look like to our children.
Not only are the capabilities of our devices increasing at an accelerating rate, but that capability is moving out into all phases of our world as the costs of those devices shrink. Most of us have to look no further than our cell phone to see this in very tangeble ways. The smart phones of today are really very powerful, networked mobile computers. Currently mobile phone penetration is now at 85% or over 6 billion handsets. Of those handests almost one third of them are smart phones, or effectively hand held computers.
So though I could belabor it, it hopefully is pretty clear that technology, and in particular information technology, is changing at a dramatic rate. So what?
The Singularity Approaches
The Singularity (capitalized) is a term coined by science fiction writer Verner Vinge. The core tenant of The Singularity is the rise of a greater-than-human intelligence. That is a phrase worth pondering on a bit. It refers to some group of 'things' being smarter than humans. Not just faster, though digital systems will definitely think and communicate faster, but smarter. That means in all facets of what we think of as intelligence -- creativity, invention, deduction, exploration, etc...
The reason he referred to it as a singularity is that once we have created, either biologically or technologically, an intelligence greater than ourselves everything that comes after will be different. It is a profound concept, and one that has been the subject of international conferences and numerous books and articles. Most experts do not doubt that this will occur, it is just a matter of time before we reach this point, and the current concensus is that this will be in the 2020-30 timeframe.
This really will change everything. Once we artificially create the first device with an intelligence superior to our own there is every incentive to create lots of these entities. Companies will use these geniuses to run themselves more efficiently. Militaries will integrate them into super-smart weapons. Scientists will deploy them to accelerate the exploration into new fields. Most importantly, some of these super smart entities will be put to task of improving themselves -- and this is where the Singularity starts.
We humans can do and learn amazing things to teach our kids, but our kids are human. Maybe they are better fed and better resourced but they are human. The hardware doesn't change. An artificial intelligence has the advantage of changing it's next generations hardware and software, whereas we humans are limited for all practical purposes to just improving our kids software. They not only will be smarter than us, they will be getting smarter every day at a pace we can never keep up with, because they are not limited to biological generations. Whereas we need to raise a kid for a couple decades, a machine can iterate through a generation in days. We distinguish ourselves from animals in that we have minds that can think, imagine and create in a way that other animals cannot. Now we will be giving berth to a race of devices that can out think, out imagine and out create us.
Some imagine that this will be the beginning of a golden age of prosperity and discovery. Problems that have vexed us for centuries will be solved in years. We will be able live in plenty on this planet and explore others with tools and technologies that look like magic to us today. All the challenges of labor will be handed over to machines and humans will be free to explore philosophy and art and science. Others fear this will be the distopian end to the human era on earth, with the machines leaving us behind as just biological competitors for resources. I choose to believe that reality will lie somewhere in between, with great advances and difficult challenges alike. The cold reality is that this change is coming, and we can choose to deal with it or live in denial.
How Do We Help Our Kids?
As a parent, as interested as I am in following these evolving trends, I worry how we help our kids prepare to be happy in this very different future. How we can best help our children is to help them to be the most adaptable, creative adults they each can. They can still grow up to be artists, teachers, welders, doctors or any other avocation they can imagine, but to thrive they will need core skills and a foundational realization that the world is a changing place.
1. Help Your Kids to Learn to Love Learning
When you view the future through this lens it becomes clear that the hyper-competitive, achievement-focused view of learning is almost comical in its futility. The rush to teach kids to read at the earliest possible moment so you can check that box and begin trying to clear the next scholastic hurdle only prepares your kids for many more hurdles. Sure your kids will do great on tests, but what about after? "Learning" is not "My Baby Can Read". It is not memorizing the state capitols or scoring high on standardized tests. Learning is the process of experiencing something new and then gaining a degree of mastery of it so that you can apply that knowledge elsewhere. You can't 'make' a kid learn but you can continually introduce them to new experiences in ways that help them learn something new. You don't need to give your kid a quiz at the zoo, but if you haven't gone to the zoo go! Go to a park and fly a kite with them. Teach them how to bake. Build a bird house. Go to a museum neither of you have ever been to before. The key is finding activities and interests that require some interaction and allows some level of mastery. Riding a roller coaster is novel, but there is no level of mastery, whereas planting a garden involves lessons in delayed gratification, basic biology, project management and so much more.
If you noticed, all my examples are about 'doing' things, and that is because the only sustainable learning comes from children learning how to 'do' new things. Textbooks and Wikipedia are great, but alone they do not engage enough of the brain to develop new skills. There is a reason that all the top science and engineering universities have all their exams as open book; it is because memorization is a tremendous waste of brain power. As my undergraduate flight mechanics professor once admonished "Why should you memorize a formula that you can look up? I want you to *use* the formula not recite it. If you memorize everything then one day you will wake up and not remember your name!"
So if you want your child to be a huge hit in 1950's America, by all means enter them in a spelling bee. If you'd rather them be a huge hit in 2020's globe, go build really lame robot together. The latter is more fun, involves a lot more steps, and will push you both out of your comfort zone in a good way. To paraphrase the axiom of experimentation... When you succeed you learn one thing, when you fail you learn many.
2. Help Your Kids to Expect and Thrive With Change
This is one that is much easier said than done, but I think it can addressed at least on some level by taking absolutes out of our every day language. I know I do it all the time, but more than ever the rules we live by are going to be in flux. It's more than likely that neither of my daughters will learn to drive, or if they do it will be in a limited, machine-assisted way. I talk to them now about it and don't put emphasis on that right of passage because probably we'll have self-driving cars in the next 8-10 years. Where they live now and in the future has little bearing on the relationships they develop and nuture. If you look at Apple, MIT and Stanford's disparate work in remote education it seems highly improbably that the university as we know it will be as prominent in their education, so don't talk about the institution of college (though I am a huge Michigan fan) but the concept of school past high school.
In general, I look for things that they think of are certainties and ask questions like "what if that wasn't true" or "why not", and when they question me about why something "is" I am happy to explain if it is a physical law, but I try to get into a dialog if it's anything else.
All kids love certainty, but if you frame it in a positive way 'change' means anything they imagine is possible.
3. Embrace the Technology
Not to be too crass, but I laugh when I see people rushing to teach their children Chinese, because that will be "important in the future". First of all, I come from the generation where people rushed to teach their kids Japanese for the very same reason, and 20 years of economic stagnation in that island nation make it look a little comical. But mostly I am stunned because it shows a complete lack of understanding of how far technology has already come. Learning a language for cultural reasons is great, but don't put your kids through it because you think it will help them succeed. We already have very capable multi-language translators on our cell phones. How long do you think it will be before you just have an automatic translator in your bluetooth headset that will translate any language in real time whether on the phone or just talking with someone over coffee? And then how long after that until they minaturize it so that it is implantable? If you want to teach your kid a language that will matter in the future, teach them Java.
This is just one example of how people focus on succeeding in yesterday's reality. In military strategy they refer to this as the urge to prepare to fight the last war instead of the next. Maybe it's because we all are biased to want our kids to have what we did, or what we thought we should have, but the reality is that parents need to be conversant in technology to pave the way for our kids to be ready to master it. If you need even more incentive then a more sobering thought is how are you going to help your son or daughter with their homework if you don't even know how to use the machines and information sources that are used to actually do the work.
It's An Exciting Future
Things are going to be radically different, but that is something that should be exciting more than frightening. Our children are more capable and adaptable than give them credit for, but we owe it to them to try to help as much as we can.